The U.S. Championship: A Legacy of Greatness is a long trek, about eight hours in total, with bonus matches on the Blu-ray version. I wouldn’t recommend watching this all at once, unless you really, really love wrestling.
Hosted by good ol’ JBL, the man many of us love to hate, the release uses him rather sparingly, introducing matches and giving a little background here and there. He mostly spends his time talking about generic U.S. values. It’s about what you’d expect. Thankfully the vignettes are brief.
JBL begins with a brief explanation of the territory system and how Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic territory, the forerunner to WCW, originated the version of the U.S. title that eventually carried over to the WWE after Vince McMahon bought the company in 2001. January 1, 1975, Harley Race became the first U.S. champion in a tournament. JBL points out that there’s no photos or video of the event, so it was probably a fictional tournament, like the one in which Pat Patterson became the Intercontinental champion a few years later. Then we get the first “match” on the Blu-ray: Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat, with Andre the Giant (!) as the special guest referee. Very short, this one. Lots of classic Ric Flair taunts, working the crowd, that kind of thing. There’s no ending to the match. This is not exactly a classic and one wonders why it was included, except perhaps as an historical curiosity, as an example of Ric Flair’s mastery of psychology. Well, okay. After this, we jump ahead to 1983 and a match between Greg Valentine and Roddy Piper before their classic Starrcade ‘83 bout for the title. This match, however, is on the old World Championship Wrestling TV series on TBS. Man, those sets were so cheap looking. I don’t know, this was an okay match with plenty of brawling, ending with interference by Dick Slater.
The first big match on the Blu-ray set comes from Starrcade 1985, and features the steel cage match between Tully Blanchard and Magnum TA. It’s a great brawler of a match with plenty of blood and brutal spots. It’s a little cringe-worthy whenever one of the two wrestlers shouts “Nooooo!” into the microphone when they’re asked by their opponent if they want to quit. Yes, yes, it’s a bit melodramatic. It’s also weird to see the wrestlers holding the microphone. I’m used to seeing the ref do that. But, yeah, great match. TA, the babyface wins. Both wrestlers are covered in blood by the end. It’s hard to watch at points, it’s that brutal. You really can’t help but at least respect the work ethic of these guys. Also, kudos to the WWE for including a second Magnum TA match afterward, this one against Nikita Koloff. That’s one of the nice things about this Blu-ray. You sometimes end up getting a mini career retrospective for guys who are very unlikely to get their own compilation.
The next match is also from Starrcade. This time we fast forward two years and get Lex Luger vs. Dusty Rhodes. First of two Dusty matches, which is great. JJ Dillon, manager of the Four Horsemen, the stable that Lex Luger was a part of during this time, wears a suit and tie. Really contrasts with the WWF at the time, which was far more outlandish and cartoonish.
The match is great. Luger stalks Rhodes, waiting for his opportunity. Sets up a young buck vs. veteran feel to the match. It takes a few tries, but Luger is actually able to get Rhodes onto his shoulders and into the Torture Rack. But he can’t put Dusty away. After some shenanigans, Rhodes DDT’s Lex Luger onto a chair to become the U.S. championship.
After a bonus Rhodes match, we’re “treated” to a Junkyard Dog and Barry Windham match. By all accounts, JYD was a great guy and he was super-over with the fans, but his limited moveset gets boring pretty quickly.
Two Sting matches follow, which is pretty cool. Lex Luger’s back in the first one, having regained the U.S. title. The match has a really wonky ending where Lex Luger is holding a steel chair, intending to use it on Sting, and Sting, unaware of the chair, executes a Stinger Splash, driving the chair into Lex Luger’s chest. The ref disqualifies Sting and I’m left wondering if intent matters at all in this case? I mean, how could that have been intentional? So, okay, not a bad match, but one wonders what big match could have been substituted in its place. Anyway, I guess it doesn’t matter too much, because the Sting vs. Rick Rude match from Clash of the Champions XVII in November of 1991 redeems that choice. It’s a frenzied match that ends in a flurry of activity as Paul E. Dangerously cracks his giant brick of a cell phone over Sting’s head. Is Sting down for the count? Of course not! After a last minute kick out, Sting DDT’s Rude for the win. Quite a fast paced match with some great psychology and storytelling.
Following this, we get a rare one. Ricky Steamboat vs. Dustin Rhodes from an episode of WCW Saturday Night. It’s nice to see a proper Ricky Steamboat match, and it’s always fun to watch Dustin. In the middle of the match, Rhodes hits a pretty sweet bulldog, giving the impression that he just might have a chance to take the title from Steamboat. But, alas, this doesn’t happen. This was definitely an above-average match, especially for one that aired on regular TV.
We return to big matches with “Stunning” Steve Austin vs. the Great Muta at Spring Stampede 1994. Austin was not quite the morally ambiguous man audiences would come to love. Instead, he was still the man you loved to hate. Nice, fast-paced match. Bobby Heenan is quick to point out the irony of the crowd cheering for a foreigner to win the U.S. title. Good stuff.
Next, we move into WCW’s NWO era. The first match from this era is DDP vs. Eddie Guerrero. DDP comes to the ring smoking a cigar. Is this part of his yoga regimen? This match was a great reminder that the NWO could be incredibly annoying at times. Tony Schiavone even sounds fed up on commentary when he says, “Typical NWO stuff,” as the group crowds the ring to attack both competitors, the pretext being that DDP refused to join the group. Okay. After that match, we get a brief palate cleanser with Chris Jericho vs. Dean Malenko. Man, the Nitro undercard used to be great during this time, despite the inevitable NWO stuff at the end of the night.
The final two matches from the NWO era are Curt Henning vs. The Giant and Goldberg vs. Raven. Both of these matches are entirely predictable and were so at the time, too. We all knew that Paul Wight was on his way out of the company when this match happened and the Goldberg thing was even more predictable. He wasn’t about to have his streak come to an end at the hands of mid-carder Raven. We all knew this. I mean, we didn’t expect the streak to end with stupid NWO shenanigans either, but at the time Goldberg was a cyborg. He killed all of his opponents. Maybe he was practicing for his role in Universal Soldier: The Return.
After two not bad Bret Hart matches, including one against, sigh, Goldberg, we come to the end of the disc, and the end of WCW. Boy, that last WCW logo that they used from 1999 to the company’s demise in 2001 was really shit, wasn’t it? Most of the time, so were the matches. With Lance Storm vs. Mike Awesome, we get to relieve the “evil Canadian” gimmick. Why? Canadians simply don’t make for good villains. Please stop trying.
The final match on the first disc is Booker T. vs. Rick Steiner at WCW’s Greed PPV. Booker was already the WCW champion. What the hell did he need the U.S. title for? Ah, but who cares, I guess. It’s always fun to watch Booker T.
The second disc features the U.S. title in the WWF/WWE. Get ready for a bunch of John Cena. I know it’s pretty popular to hate on him, but I dug these selections, one from the beginning of his career and two from last year. After a weird Kurt Angle vs. Undertaker match to start the disc, we get the first U.S. title match at a Wrestlemania. John Cena vs. Big Show in 2004. Good stuff. I couldn’t help but smile when Cena came out and did a special “rap” for the Big Show. It reminded me of the bad poetry the Genius used to recite in the early 90’s. And yeah, Big Show was still pretty mobile back then. Most impressive, I think, was when Cena lifted Big show onto his shoulders. Very impressive, though I could almost hear Cena’s body weeping.
After that match, JBL appears and makes a comment about how stupid Cena’s “spinner” version of the title looked. I can’t believe it, but I actually agree with JBL here. Those belts looked stupid. I was happy to see the clip where JBL actually explodes the title. I had stopped watching wrestling for a while at that point, so maybe the rest of the segment was lame, but that little bit they showed, where the title literally blew up was awesome.
After that, we get a pretty not-too-bad match between King Booker and Bobby Lashley, followed by a match between Matt Hardy and MVP. I went through a huge gap in the mid to late 2000’s when I didn’t watch wrestling at all, so I pretty much missed the entirety of MVP’s career. Very talented guy. I was glad to see they included another MVP match, this time against the wonderful Kofi Kingston, who was just starting out in the WWE at the time. Kofi is always a treat to watch. I mean, the height he gets with those dropkicks! Just an amazing thing to watch. Kofi wins the title with a rollup, of all things. MVP congratulates Kofi, and there’s a symbolic passing of the torch.
One of the better and weirder matches of the second disc follows. Hell in a Cell in 2010. John Morrison vs. Daniel Bryan vs. The Miz. It’s always weird to look back and see early Daniel Bryan matches in the WWE. He was a legend in Ring of Honor, considered one of the “founding fathers” of the organization, but here he’s treated like some fresh-faced underdog. I guess they really didn’t know what to do with the guy for quite a while.
It’s a “submissions count anywhere” match. So we get to see a lot of yoga stretches. Err, I mean submission moves, I guess. I remember when I was a kid the biggest submission moves were a Camel Clutch and sleeper hold. It’s not a whole lot of fun for me to watch people getting stretched. But there’s some good action in the match, too. Of particular note is the way John Morrison scurries up the scaffolding like a spider monkey before jumping off and knocking Bryan and Miz to the ground. Bryan gets the victory with a Yes Lock and all is right with the world.
Before the two John Cena matches that close out the disc, we get a very, very good match between Tyson Kidd and Cesaro at NXT. The match clips at an unbelievable pace and the moves are all very smooth and expertly executed. An absolute joy to watch.
I liked the two Cena matches at the end. The match against Dean Ambrose in the very first “U.S. Open Challenge” from RAW the night after Wrestlemania 31 was particularly exciting. Jerry Lawler, on commentary, says that Cena is getting a “mixed reaction,” but this is more than a little disingenuous. The crowd is totally behind Ambrose. There are several times where it looks like Ambrose is going to regain the title, but of course that doesn’t happen.
Following that, we get Del Rio and Cena at Hell in a Cell 2015. The match itself was pretty good, but I remember getting a hell of a kick out of seeing Del Rio back in the WWE. A weird feeling, and one that wouldn’t last very long. And seeing Zeb Coulter as his manager was just bizarre. What a strange way for Coulter to end his WWE career.
Man, that was a lot of wrestling. Good stuff, for the most part. Some baffling choices. Everything is at least watchable. There’s some bonus matches on the Blu-ray, but eight hours of wrestling was about enough for me. Here’s the bonus matches, if you’re interested:
United States Championship Match
Dusty Rhodes vs. Ivan Koloff
NWA Main Event • April 3, 1988
WCW United States Championship Match
Dustin Rhodes vs. “Ravishing” Rick Rude
WCW Pro • September 18, 1993
WWE United States Championship Match
JBL vs. William Regal
SmackDown • April 28, 2006
WWE United States Championship Match
Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus
RAW • March 14, 2011
WWE United States Championship Match
Dean Ambrose vs. Adrian Neville
NXT • August 7, 2013
WWE United States Championship Match
John Cena vs. Cesaro
RAW • June 29, 2015